The story of the first Falcon: Gary Barnes

Published 10:25 am Saturday, February 17, 2024

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VALLEY — There’s an interesting bit of history connected to the new nickname for Chambers County High School. The mascot name “Falcons” was announced at Tuesday evening’s community meeting at Langdale Auditorium.

The first touchdown scored by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons was scored by a player who had attended Valley High and ironically enough he did it against the NFL team that had the name Rams. Valley High had the nickname Tradesmen when Barnes played there but changed it to Rams not long after he graduated.

Gary Barnes could fittingly be called Chambers County’s first Falcon. He was born in 1939 and grew up on Denson Street in the Fairfax community, just across from the Fairfax First Baptist Church. The new Chambers County High will be going up only a couple of miles away.

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Barnes was quite an athlete during his high school days. As a senior in the 1956-57 school year he was a six-foot-four wide receiver for Coach Doug Lockridge’s Rams and made the Alabama All-State and The Valley Times-News’ All Valley teams. He was also a really good basketball player. Coach Frank Howard, an Alabama native, signed him to play collegiately for Clemson. He played one year at Gordon Military Academy (appropriately enough in Barnesville, Georgia) before heading to Clemson.

Several other players from the local area played for Clemson in the 1960s, among the VHS grads Jimmy Addison, the starting quarterback on Valley High’s 1962 state championship team, and Dave Thompson, who played in 56 NFL games for the Detroit Lions in the 1970s. Joe Waldrep played for Lanett High in the early 1960s and was a teammate of Addison’s in the mid-1960s at Clemson. Waldrep’s grandson is the subject of an intense recruiting battle that’s going on right now between Clemson and Auburn. Mal Waldrep is a six-foot-five, 290-pound offensive lineman who starred as a junior on Central of Phenix City’s 7A state championship team this past season. He has strong family ties to both schools. He’s named for his great-grandfather, Mal Morgan, who lettered in football, basketball, and baseball at Auburn in the late 1930s. He was a very successful football coach at Lanett High in the 1950s. The football stadium at Lanett High is jointly named for him and former LHS Coach Dan Washburn.

Barnes wanted to play both football and basketball at the collegiate level, but Coach Howard persuaded him to concentrate on football. In his sophomore year at Clemson, he had a 68-yard touchdown catch against TCU in the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl. It was a decisive play in the Tigers’ 23-7 upset win over the Horned Frogs, who were ranked 7th in the nation at the time. Clemson won the ACC championship that year and finished the season 11th in the nation. Barnes’ big play in the Bluebonnet Bowl win would stand as Clemson’s longest TD reception until 2018.

For his Clemson career, he caught 39 passes for 719 yards and six touchdowns. He also saw action at running back, where he ran the ball eight times for 31 yards and three scores his señor year in 1961.

Barnes was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1962. Coached by Vince Lombardi, the Packers had won the NFL championship in 1961 and would repeat as champions in Barnes’ rookie year. He would later play for the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, and Philadelphia Eagles before becoming the first player to be signed to a contract by the Atlanta Falcons in 1965. He played with a semi-pro team in Huntsville, Alabama before reporting to Atlanta.

The Falcons had their first game in September 1966. They trailed the L.A. Rams 16-0 before rookie quarterback Randy Johnson connected with Barnes on a 53-yard touchdown play. That narrowed the score to 16-7 just before halftime. Atlanta made it 16-14 in the second half before Los Angeles made a late field goal to make the final 19-14.

For his NFL career, Barnes had 41 receptions for 583 yards and two touchdowns. His best game was in 1963 when he caught six passes for 97 yards in a win for Dallas over Philadelphia.

After football, Barnes worked in the textile industry for a time before getting into legal work. In 1986, the Clemson City Council asked him to be the city’s first municipal judge. He spent 30 years in that role until retiring in 2015.

In 2002, he was inducted into the Clemson University Athletic Hall of Fame. Three years later he was selected into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.

Late in life, Barnes suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He died at age 83 on August 15, 2023.

He deserves to be remembered as Chambers County’s first Falcon. Gary Barnes never forgot his hometown and the upbringing he had in Fairfax. He came back here many times and often spoke to youth groups at booster club meetings and the like.